The Sixteenth Amendment, as understood in the 21st century, has fueled our government economically since its ratification in 1913. The idea of income taxes wasn’t new or revolutionary, the concept had been drafted and used to finance the country’s Civil War to later be repealed in 1872. The idea had been passed around, rejected, and accepted since then. The main reason behind it’s delay in ratification was actually just a difference in opinion. The concept comes originally from Article I, Section VIII of the Constitution, where Congress was given the power to levy duties, imports, and taxes. But, the proposition for uniformity and “indirect” taxation proved confusing and unstable (We the People, Our Documents).
With roots tied to financing the Civil War, the concept of income tax still stirred in the lives of farmers post its repeal in 1872. Expensive, manufactured goods were forced onto southern and western farmers because their farm products produced too little in value in comparison. As a result, farmers formed organizations like the People’s (Populist) Party and National Farmers Alliance to advocate for reforms, including the income tax. By 1894, Congress had enacted a 2% tax on income, but included it as part of a high tariff bill (Jensen, Erik, Northwestern Law Scholarly Commons). The proposal was quickly shut down by the Supreme Court, distancing the federal government from a possible beneficial ideal. Farm organizations condemned the government once again for their cooperation with big businesses seemingly against the farmer. And consequently, the growth of confusing, outstretched tariffs continued into the start of the 20th century.
In Richard Lindholm’s, The Constitutionality of a Federal Net Wealth Tax, he explains how distinguishing the federal government’s exact taxation powers, based off of what had been implemented in the Constitution “lacked economic meaning” (The Constitutionality of a Federal Net Wealth Tax, pg 451). The original draft gave such powers of nation-wide taxation to Congress, without a secure sense of what that meant. By 1909, Congress was more progressive than ever, and now pushing for the idea of a changed system of taxation. Meanwhile, Conservatives hoped to diminish the idea quietly claiming that it was a “socialistic confiscation of wealth” (Constitutional Rights Foundation). Included in this group was President Taft and other congressional leaders like Henry Cabot Lodge, who instead proposed the passing of a constitutional amendment to enact the tax. Believing this would never reach ⅔ majority and ¾ state majority as needed for amendments, they were left surprised. A “soak the rich” sentiment became popular with the general public, strengthening the support of the tax broadly, and leading the initial sponsors of the amendment (the Conservatives) to retract their proposal (Federal Income Tax, Our Documents). But instead, the amendment was passed. The sixteenth amendment authorized a “direct” tax on citizen’s incomes, settling the confusion from the highest authority.
Although a win for the farmers, and others who backed its passing, the “Soak the Rich” sentiment backfired. Within the amendment is a loophole, or a provision for companies that put money into “charitable foundations” get a tax break. This gave organizations control over their money without having to pay the income tax, a concept that has barely faltered in the last 100 years (Baltzell, George, We the People). On top of this, the ratification process was slow going, taking 4 years to reach implementation in 42 states–with 6 rejecting it. Preaching to be the “fairest and cheapest of all taxes”, the rates differed by differences in income (1% for incomes $4,000-$20,000 and 3% for over $50,000). But the conditions to the amendment have changed since then, and dramatically so after the involvement in wars.
The institution of this amendment has given Congress the financial security to build and maintain our country’s roads, fund public schools, keep the army, and other “duties” the government must carry out. Yet, the conditions behind income taxation has become a stress for many Americans, as the document now reaches 1,000 pages. April fifteenth of every year is now a dreaded topic, now apart of the American life. Even so, the amendment is the nation’s primary source of income, preventing them from having to search for other sources. Despite imbalances in its role now, without its ratification, the outcome of the two World Wars and the Cold War would have been drastically different. It would be naive to say otherwise, even if it is through a conformity cost. Taxing, insecure tariffs would still regulate the citizens. As do many laws in our government need revision, so does the sixteenth amendment. Nevertheless it pushed our country into more credible territory– without this law much of what has been accomplished would not have been without it.